In Defense Of Mono

This weekend I was at a friends birthday party, enjoying some food and beverage in lovely Jersey City.  Things were progressing normally, TV sporting event on part of the time, Computer playing iTunes at others.  At the end of the evening, when the location was about to change, someone turned on some Velvet Underground.  I’m not going to go into some hipster rant about Lou Reed or the positives and negatives of Nico, this isn’t even about a particular band….wait, one quick side note.  I once had a Velvet Underground CD which perished in a spectacular car fire.  But there is no time for that now, I have a point here.  I turned to someone and said “is this coming from an AM radio? That’s fucking awesome!”  In fact, it was coming from one of those little ipod dock type of things, with one small speaker.  Pure mp3 sound, made fantastic by the context.  Had this been playing through much larger and more expensive speakers, the effect would have been not nearly as intense.


I read an interview with Paul McCartney once, who was asked what he thought about Mp3’s and quality issues.  He responded with something like “well, you know mate, before I was a billionaire, in our early days we used to take the little battery powered radio to the beach and turn on the old AM to hear the latest hits, before I was the one writing them because I’m awesome, and we had a jolly old time, with just that one tiny speaker, before i was bathing in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck!  So what really matters is the song!”    Quote me on it, those are his exact words, with possibly a few more ego maniacal rants thrown in.  But Sir Mrs John Lennon has a point there.  Maybe there are even those among us who recall listening to a cassette walkman, cranking out the hits in lofi questionable speed control tapes, getting all we could from the song.  Bob Dylan made that amazing and relevant statement not too long ago that everything recorded recently sounds like garbage.  It kinda does, with a few notable exceptions which we do not have time to discuss in this post, but lets say T Bone Burnett is producing most of them.  So what if we make a drastic move to bring things back into perspective.  Ready?  Lets get rid of the 2nd speaker.

Ringo, probably trying to steal emerick's grammy.

In Geoff Emerick’s fantastic book “Here There and Everywhere” he discusses his philosophy on mono in the days of early stereo.  Emerick was The Beatles engineer for the majority of their career.  He created most of the sounds everyone has tried to emulate since.  George Martin was a bitch, this kid was the brains of the operation.  But an interesting point he made, is that stereo was pretty much a joke when it came out.  They would do silly panning effects just because they could, nothing to further the strength of the song, they would just mess around.  If you feel like dropping several hundred dollars on these new Beatles reissue box sets, just listen to the mono recordings and there is no comparison.  In fact, I encourage you to choose your friends based on which box set they would go for, mono or stereo.  If we can consistently learn anything from The Beatles, its that limitations of technology can enhance creativity.  Those kids had 4 tracks, and mono.  Look what they came up with.  If they had a pro tools rig and surround sound, Idon’t think the albums would have been as good, and I don’t think many people would disagree.


For the greatest of all Wintertine Jewish Octetular Present Presentations…Hannukkah, I got an Tivoli Model One Radio.  Its a small, well designed box, featuring one 3.5 inch speaker.  With all this hi-fi hubub going on recently, I felt the need to give 1 speaker a chance.  There is an intimacy in mono that you just don’t get from some giant hifi system.  I think the first night i plugged it in, Little Feat’s “Willin” came on a WFUV show very late, and it heightened the experience.  It also has one huge tuning knob, no digital anything, and a 1/8″ input, should you choose to put a turntable or ipod through it, which I do intend to do.  Obviously I feel conflicted about playing some mp3’s through a well designed analog box, but we are children of technology, so lets just selectively embrace it, ok?

For about 2 years I would only record drum overheads using one mic.  I heard somewhere that all of the Rolling Stones “Some Girls” album was recorded with only one overhead, a kick and snare mic, reinforced with a PA system. That’s how it should be done.  KISS Method, not Gene Simmons.  Why has this trend not come back into fashion?  Why does no one release mono LPs or something anymore?  Can’t we start a hipster trend in the depths of bushwick, and take away every home studio’s left speaker?  Lets start a crusade.

Beatles Ukulele Tribute @ Brooklyn Bowl

The Beatles hold a big place in the hearts of many. Also in the wallets of many, but that’s another post. Its probably safe to say that their music has been adapted into every style imaginable. What about Rap you say? Grey album. Deal with it. Moving on. As the widest reaching pop band in history, their songs translate well. You can play a Beatles song on any instrument, from Bazouki to Oboe, and its going to sound pleasing. So when my friend Mika mentioned there was a Beatles Ukulele tribute, you know I was down.

The Uke also holds a place in my heart. So simple, yet so effective. If I could record an entire album of Henry Mancini standards on ukulele featuring Biz Markee on Vocals, I’d do it in a second (if Biz would only return my calls). There was also a brief moment where Mika and I had a band called Mikatini and The Shakers, featuring duel Ukulele and hand percussion/pedal steel guitar. So on a Sunday night, we headed to Brooklyn Bowl, in the heart of Williamsburg, ready to be entertained with some ironic interpretations of British classics, on Hawaii’s most adorable 4 string instrument. We certainly got more than we bargained for.

Now, let me just say, if our names were not on the bowling wait list, and had that list not been very long, we would have been out of there much sooner. There were so many problems, I don’t even know where to start. First off….and this may be a confusing one….LACK OF UKULELE. I know, I know. Its right in the title of the event! But seriously! What I walked in to find, seemed like a cover band of local dads, sloppily rocking out to some Beatles covers, poorly rehearsed, with one guy who looked like an overweight Sean Lennon on Uke in the back corner of the stage, barely amplified. You could not even hear it. After 3 false starts of “The Long and Winding Road” I was sufficiently insulted, and just gave up overall. Eventually they got through the tune, but by then, the magic was gone.

Notice the lack of ukulele presence
Notice the lack of ukulele presence

One other consistently annoying factor in most Brooklyn events, is an irritating MC. Where do they find these people? Its always like some less funny, more sarcastic Janeane Garofalo type, who always then sings a song with the band, and this song, is always not good. This particular host kept reminding the crowd she went to art school. What other than “well that explains it!” are you supposed to say in response to that? Don’t they know some jovial big dude they can give a couple beers to and have them introduce bands? I am 100% sure that would have been better than this chosen MC.

Later on, after a short break, the music did get slightly better. Hockey themed band “Zamboni” took the stage and performed a competent version of “And Your Bird Can Sing” which was like a breath of Hockey Flavored Fresh Air. One of the dudes from Guster played a forgettable song, then a crowd of the most stereotypical hipsters you or your mom has ever seen, tore through some shit I can’t remember. It was that good. Had I not been bowling at the time, I would have thrown something at them, stole their parents money out of their wallets, and left.

Luckily this was right behind the stage
Luckily this was right behind the stage

Now, the point i’m trying to get across here has nothing to do with The Beatles, or any of the bands which performed this evening. Well, maybe with the Beatles a bit. The point is this. If you advertise a “ukulele tribute to the Beatles” you should probably focus a little more on the actual ukulele. Thats like having a Garlic Festival and just putting a little garlic powder on top of each dish as an afterthought. We were certainly duped. Think of the potential for awesomeness this event had. Imagine 3 ukulele players on stage, baritone, tenor, and soprano (all types of uke) playing “She Loves You Yea Yea Yea” dressed in the Sgt Peppers uniforms, doing some great vocal harmony. How great would that be?! “8 Days A Week” was practically written to be strummed on the uke.

One day, we’ll have our Beatles Vs Stones debate. I believe its obvious that I am a Stones guy, but I will say that one main advantage Los Fabulosos Cuatros have, is that you cant really translate “Satisfaction” to the ukulele.